Columnist Kelly Burgess is taking time off to enjoy the holidays, so we thought we would rerun her very first column, which debuted on Christmas Eve of last year.
Theories abound for why Americans are becoming obese at alarming rates — eating junk food, lack of exercise, too much sugar, and overeating are a few that come immediately to mind.
My theory? People aren't cooking enough. And no, I'm not talking about nuking frozen meals, which usually have a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. I'm talking about cooking from scratch. Or at least near-scratch.
This column is going to be devoted to preparing easy, healthy meals from scratch, but with the understanding that "from scratch" doesn't mean what it did when our grandmothers were cooking.
Now there are so many helpers like canned, jarred, frozen and pre-cut and washed basics, that the process couldn't be easier. It's just as fast as ordering a pizza or hitting the drive-through, but the results are so much better for you and your family.
Cooking from scratch also saves money and will definitely improve the quality of anyone's diet. The best part is that quick and healthy recipes are everywhere. You don't even have to pay for a cookbook any longer thanks to the wonders of the Internet.
As for those who "can't" cook, the fact is that cooking is a skill. You gain confidence and competence the more you practice. Cooking isn't brain surgery, anyway. Just relax and toss stuff together and let it cook. Stay away from complex recipes or recipes that require a ton of prep work. And if things don't work out there are always peanut butter sandwiches.
Another important focus when cooking for your family is local, seasonal ingredients. Strawberries might be ripening in some hot corner of the globe, but here where the warmth is nothing but a wish and a memory, greens like kale and spinach, as well as carrots, parsnips and squashes are what should be on the menu.
In Pine and Richland, we are lucky to have terrific supermarkets, with a lot of options for local and seasonal produce. The Giant Eagle in Gibsonia recently remodeled its produce department, with an impressive, expanded organic selection. That's where I purchased the ingredients for the recipes that follow.
This time of year, when there's so much to do, it's particularly tempting to opt for the drive-through, but turning to unhealthy food just to save time can put a strain on your body that can be exacerbated by the stress of the season.
Instead, try one of these easy, inexpensive one-pot meals. Neither of them has strict cooking times and can be adapted to the time and ingredients you have available. If you're not dieting, serve with a good, thickly sliced bread, like Italian or sourdough.
Beans, Greens and Sausage
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes
This is my own quick adaptation of beans and greens, turned into a one-pot meal. I often serve it on football Sundays. I start it cooking about 30 minutes before game time, place a stack of wide, shallow pasta bowls beside the stove, and then call everyone to help themselves from the pan right before kickoff. I also set a dish of Parmesan cheese on the counter if anyone would like a sprinkle. We all grab a drink and a TV tray and have a family meal with the Steelers!
1 can cannellini beans, 15.5 ounce
16 ounces pasta sauce (I use Mama Rosa brand, a local, Butler-based company)
1 large sausage or kielbasa, about a pound or so
1 bag baby spinach, washed and rinsed, about 6 ounces
water — 1/4 cup or so
Parmesan cheese, optional
Optional ingredients: anchovies; garlic; jarred, sliced pepper strips
Rinse cannellini beans and set aside to drain. In a large skillet, add pasta sauce and begin heating over medium heat. Slice sausage into coins and add to pasta sauce. Stir, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add spinach, tearing into smaller pieces as it's added, and add the water to help steam the spinach. Stir, cover, and simmer until spinach is wilted, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add drained beans and heat for 5 minutes or so. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Optional ingredients: I use a lot of anchovies, so if I have leftovers, I first sauté anchovies and garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil, mashing the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they turn into paste. I then add the pasta sauce and continue with the recipe. As for the sliced pepper strips, they're found in the canned vegetable section of your supermarket. If I think of it, I buy a jar, drain it, and add it to the dish at the beginning. It just ramps up the veggie quotient.
Quick Onion Pot Roast
Prep time: 10 to 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 to 4 hours, unattended
This was my mother's recipe. It has to cook for a few hours, but it couldn't be simpler to put together and then just needs to be dished out. I've never done so, but I imagine it could be cooked in a crockpot on low all day.
1 chuck roast, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds
2 onions, peeled and quartered
4 potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 package onion soup mix
1 bag baby carrots
2-1/2 cups water
Swirl some olive oil in the bottom of a large Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high heat and add the chuck roast, searing on each side for 2 to 3 minutes. Add onions, potatoes, onion soup mix and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, give it a good shake to coat the veggies with onion liquid, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours. Add carrots one hour before roast is done, at about the 2- to 3-hour mark, so they don't get overly mushy.
Variations: Leave out the potatoes to save prep time and serve with a vegetable, such as frozen cauliflower, prepared in the microwave. Pour the juices from the roast over them - yum! Baby carrots can also be prepared in the microwave when the roast is done if you're not going to be around to add them later. Or, if you don't mind mushy, toss them in at the beginning. And save any leftovers, it makes a wonderful soup that I'll talk about in my next column.
Kelly Burgess has been cooking, eating and writing about it since at least 20 pounds ago. This column will emphasize quick, healthy food from (sort of) scratch, using ingredients that are easily obtained at local markets and stores.